NPR Story by Carrie Johnson
A bipartisan task force created by Congress issued “an urgent call to action” Tuesday to overhaul the nation’s federal prisons and reduce the number of U.S. inmates by 60,000 over the next decade.
A new report from the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections found that punitive mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes represent “the primary driver” of prison overcrowding. The report recommends they be reserved for the most violent offenders.
The report said almost 80 percent of inmates convicted of drug crimes had no prior criminal history. And it urged Congress to create a path for prisoners who have served more than 15 years to apply for shorter sentences by giving judges a “second look” at their cases.
“The federal government, the Congress and the Bureau of Prisons need to take a hard look at how sentencing and prisons really operate in this country,” task force member Laurie Robinson told NPR in an interview. “We think the federal criminal justice system suffers from a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing and rehabilitation, and that doesn’t really serve the interests of public safety.”
The report also urges more oversight and resources for the Federal Bureau of Prisons — and for programs that return inmates to their communities and foster bonds with their families.
“We certainly can’t continue to do what we’re doing now,” said another task force member and former public defender, Cynthia Roseberry. “We need to ensure that once a person serves their sentence, we stamp that ticket paid in full, and part of that means preparing them for re-entry.”
The task force consists of former lawmakers, corrections officials, academics and other people who’ve long interacted with the justice system. Despite the wide variety in background and political outlook, three people on the task force told NPR the group easily reached consensus.
Recommendations in the report go far beyond legislative proposals to overhaul the corrections system in the House and the Senate. It’s not clear whether the bills will pass before the presidential election intensifies this year.
That doesn’t bother Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who’s been raising concerns about efforts to be more lenient on drug criminals.”These defendants are for the most part very serious offenders,” said Sessions, a former U.S. attorney. “Federal prosecutors … they don’t focus on petty crimes and small cases.” Sessions said the administration and lawmakers need to be careful not to “retreat” from criminal justice policies that helped bring crime to near-record lows. He pointed out a recent case in Ohio, where a man who had benefited from changes to the federal sentencing guidelines has been charged with killing his ex-girlfriend and two of her children earlier this month.
Advocates who want to see changes to the justice system acknowledge that some offenders will commit new crimes if they’re released. But they say research gives prison officials more and better tools to identify inmates who pose the most danger. And they say the system locks up too many people for too long, producing overcrowded prisons where administrators don’t have the resources to offer drug treatment, education and family interactions.
The task force is named after Colson, who served time in prison for Watergate-era misdeeds and later went on to found an advocacy group for inmates called the Prison Fellowship.
Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for policy and advocacy, said a central principle of the organization is that after people pay their debt to society, “they are capable of being transformed and making significant contributions in their communities.”
Members of the task force said they visited a federal prison in Atlanta, where they met groups of elderly or ill inmates, some of whom had applied for compassionate release. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz has found the program is little-used, in part due to resistance from prosecutors and a nettlesome bureaucracy. Robinson said she heard from those inmates who could barely talk about their “lack of hope. “Certainly this is an area where more requests could be granted without risk to public safety,” she said.
On Monday, President Obama is announcing a new order to reduce potential discrimination against former convicts in the hiring process for federal government employees.
It is a step towards what many criminal justice reformers call “ban the box” – the effort to eliminate requirements that job applicants check a box on their applications if they have a criminal record. While the rule was once seen as a common sense way for employers to screen for criminal backgrounds, it has been increasingly criticized as a hurdle that fosters employment discrimination against former inmates, regardless of the severity of their offense or how long ago it occurred. Banning the box delays when employers learn of an applicant’s record.
President Obama is unveiling the plan on a visit to a treatment center in New Jersey, a state where Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a ban the box bill into law last year. Hillary Clinton endorsed ban the box last week, while Republican Sen. Rand Paul also introduced similar federal legislation, with Democrat Cory Booker, to seal criminal records for non-violent offenders.
The White House says it is “encouraged” by such legislation in a new statement, but emphasizes the president’s order will take immediate action, mandating that the federal government’s HR department “delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process.”
President Obama spoke to several federal prisoners about that very approach in July, when he was the first sitting president to visit an American prison.
“If the disclosure of a criminal record happens later in a job application process,” he told them, “you’re more likely to be hired.” Obama described what many studies show – that when many employers see the box checked for an applicant’s criminal record, they weed them out without ever looking at their qualifications.
“If they have a chance to at least meet you,” the president continued, “you’re able to talk to them about your life, what you’ve done, maybe they give you a chance.”
About 60-to-75% of former inmates cannot find work within their first year out of jail, according to the Justice Department, a huge impediment to re-entering society.
Research shows the existence of a criminal record can reduce an employer’s interest in applicant by about 50%, and that when white and black applicants both have records, employers are far less likely to call back a black applicant than a white one. As a 2009 re-entry study in New York city found, “the criminal record penalty suffered by white applicants (30%) is roughly half the size of the penalty for blacks with a record (60%).”
Obama’s move also comes in the wake of a growing movement for criminal justice reform – from broad calls by groups like Blacks Live Matter to a specific campaign on ban the box that ranged from half the Senate Democratic caucus to civil rights groups to artists like John Legend.
On Monday, Legend told MSNBC, “We applaud the President’s decision to end this unfair bias against people who have served their time and paid their debt to society. We hope that Congress and state legislatures across the country will follow suit.”
The President is announcing several other measures Monday, including public housing and money for re-entry programs, and he is speaking about prison reform in a speech and an exclusive interview with NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt.
Free At Last!
The 2014 regional documentary, “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection,” is now available for free viewing online on at cultureofrejection.org.
Since its regional premiere, four film festival selections, and its broadcast debut on East Tennessee PBS, “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection,” has continued to send ripples of new awareness through audiences about today’s criminal justice system. Aditionally, Governor Haslam appointed a 27-member task force to explore recommendations to reduce recidivism and urge sentencing reform. The topic of criminal justice reform has escalated to a national discussion and become an important 2016 presidential campaign issue.
In order to continue informing the issues surrounding the film, producer Jane Hillhouse, and writer/director Stephen Newton , have made the complete version of “Outcasts” available for free online.
Please share the link below with friends and family, or with anyone you think needs to see the film.
To schedule a screening for your organization, college, or church, please visit cultureofrejectoin.org
In August 2014, three months after the release of “Outcasts,” Governor Haslam appointed 27 members to the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism, including six members of the legislature, five current and former district attorneys general, three sheriffs and police chiefs, a county mayor, five executive branch officials, three judges, one public defender, one victim advocate, one community programming provider, and two representatives of the business community. Their mission was to improve public safety in Tennessee by identifying (1) strategies to reduce recidivism among individuals leaving prisons and jails and (2) changes to sentencing laws and practices that will more effectively use criminal justice resources to reduce crime and address the growth of the prison and jail population.
To achieve its mission, the Task Force was supported by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) and its staff that traveled the state soliciting stakeholder opinions, organized presentations for Task Force meetings, and facilitated four working groups: Sentencing Structure, Sentencing Classifications and Enhancements, Community Supervision, and Programming and Treatment.
Among the recommendations to reduce recidivism were:
- Establish individualized case management plans for felony offenders on community supervision (both probation and post-prison), thereby reducing the number of standard and special conditions and tailoring the conditions of supervision to fit each offender’s individual risks and needs.
- Invest in evidence-based, cost effective, and coordinated transitional programming and treatment services both during and after incarceration.
- Ensure that all incarcerated felony offenders are released, and supported by, a system of post-release community supervision.
- Develop and implement a system of positive incentives for those on community supervision, including but not limited to a reduction in the time period of supervision.
- Increase the employability of those with criminal convictions by taking steps to help them keep or obtain driver’s licenses or state photo identifications.
- Examine the management and treatment of sex offenders to reduce recidivism and protect society.
- Raise the felony property crime threshold to $1,000.
- Support a Social Impact Bond model of investment as a way of funding promising re-entry programs.
The full draft copy of the Task Force report may be downloaded here. TF final report draft July 31 2015
We commend Governor Haslam, the TDOC, the Vera Institute and the 27 members of the Task Force. Hopefully, once the report’s recommendations are implemented, thousands of formerly incarcerated individuals can achieve another chance at a productive, fulfilling life.
Petition by Elizabeth Stewart
The following is from change.org:
My son Jeremy Stewart has been given 70 years in prison for stealing. He was convicted of burglarizing two homes while the residents were out. There was no confrontation, no threats, and no violence at the time California had a harsh three strikes law. My son had two prior nonviolent offenses, the judge made the decision to enforce the law to the fullest.
I have been fighting for a fairer punishment ever since.
Under previous California law, Jeremy would have most likely been sentenced to about 12-15 years in prison. But because of California’s 3 Strikes law, Jeremy received a harsher sentence than drug cartel hit men who had confessed to killing more than 20 people. They only got 25-years-to-life.
Jeremy’s poor decisions were made while he was dealing with a serious drug addiction and depression. He needed treatment and rehabilitation.This doesn’t excuse his conduct and he knows he needs to face consequences for his actions. But 70 years to life with no good time credits allowed, means he won’t be eligible for parole until he is 96. The cost, 5 million dollars to taxpayers. This is an unjust and inhumane death sentence, all for nonviolent offense.
Jeremy is not the only one being punished — I am raising his two children in his absence. Every day, these innocent young children suffer emotionally missing their father. I struggle financially working to afford day care and their basic needs.This unjust sentence means his children will never be able share the same four walls as their father. He should have an opportunity to earn the right to return home to provide for his two young children, Heatherly and David, currently ages 5 and 6.
Today Jeremy is serving his sentence at Calipatria State Prison. He tutors other inmates, leads the Christian worship services and the Narcotics Anonymous group. He currently has a 4.2 GPA through Coastline College and will graduate in November 2015. He has been a model prisoner.
Jeremy made a terrible mistake, but should a nonviolent crime put him behind bars for life? A Petition for Clemency has been sent to Governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown to exercise his discretion and reduce Jeremy’s sentence. I am asking the Governor to reduce his sentence to 20 years. I humbly and respectfully request your support.
Please sign my petition and stand by me and my family as we fight to give Jeremy the chance to come home one day.
As you know, we were honored to be selected by the Push Film Festival in Bristol, Tennessee and Virginia. Push is our fourth film festival and since it’s a 30 minute drive away, the closest to us. The screening of “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection” was held at the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts, on the Tennessee side of State Street, which divides the town right down the middle between Tennessee and Virginia. The festival jurors awarded the film with a Certificate of Excellence.
It was exciting to see “Outcasts” on the big screen in such a grand old theater. It was like stepping back in time when we took our seats inside. Before the show, pipe organ music from a giant Wurlitzer organ (you can see the pipes) fills the entire theater…and suddenly you have time-traveled to an era when movie theaters offered much more than popcorn. As a boy, I knew that once I took my seat in the darkened theater, I was in a different world where anything was possible, and more than eager to suspend my disbelief and live inside the film with the actors. I had that same feeling today at the Paramount.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Paramount is an excellent example of the art deco motion picture palaces built in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. The restoration in the 90s retained the Paramount’s opulent, richly embellished interior. The original Venetian-styled murals and the art deco ambiance were faithfully recreated. The auditorium holds 756. You’ll feel as though you are a part of the performance from every seat in the theater.
After the screening, there was a Q & A for nearly 45 minutes. We answered a lot of questions and were happy to see many long-time “Outcasts” fans in the audience, like Maura Ubinger, who have seen the film on television, online, from a DVD, or at other local screenings and were there to support the festival and us. It was a great day for the film.
Hats off to Rusty Sheridan and a big thank you to everyone connected to the first annual Push Film Festival.
Great news! Outcasts will be screened at the PUSH! Film Festival, a first-year event that will take place on the weekend of June 12—14, 2015 in bustling Historic Downtown Bristol TN/VA.
Outcasts will be shown Sunday June 14th at 11am at the Paramount Theatre (518 State St. Bristol, TN).
As a celebration of the cinematic and visual arts in the heart of the twin cities of Bristol, the festival will bring diverse films to our community and showcase the best regional filmmakers. PUSH! aims to expand the artistic image of our region, engage new audiences in the world of film, and inspire creativity in all of us. The festival will also play host to exciting parties and workshops for filmmakers and audience members alike. PUSH! will offer something for people of all ages; you won’t want to miss any of the three days of this unique cultural experience.
The 2015 Southeastern Film Festival (SEFF), presented by the University of North Georgia, Dahlonega, Georgia, has selected “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection,” for screening April 10 – 12, and again in Nashville in November. This year’s program recognizes international and American independent cinema. This includes Documentary, Narrative, Experimental, Animation, Music Videos, New Media, and Screenwriting.
The 2015 film selection includes feature films from 11 countries, including 10 International Premieres. The 2015 film slate was chosen from a total of 1713 submissions from 43 countries. “A unique component of this year’s Festival is that we accepted waivers at the beginning of the submission process, so film professionals from disenfranchised countries had the opportunity to enter. We are proud to host filmmakers that might not otherwise have the chance to allow audiences to see their work,” said Festival Director, Ava Leigh Stewart
75 judges from all around the world, who specialize in all areas of creative development, determined the program. Celebrity film judges include Del Shores, Chris Frantz, Sylvia Reed, Roddy Bogawa, and J.J. Sedelmaier. Festival founders include Ava Leigh Stewart, Seth Scofield, Katie Gathmann, Jeremy Oliver Miller, Leo Santaiti, Spencer Drate, Judith Salavetz, Brooks Robinson, and Orlando Vargas Diaz. Our Junior Board members include, Teddy Gathmann, Tony “T-REP” Betton, Anna Moran, Ben Klecan, Farrel Anne, Danielle Bennett, Ryan Lambert, Katie Morris, and Amanda Daly.
This short film is from Brave New FIlms; Justice 3
This short film is from Brave New Films: Justice 2